Dark Fathoms

The world's largest scuba-training company plunges into the treacherous depths of technical diving, where fatalities are the accepted price for adrenaline

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

FORTY-SEVEN-YEAR-OLD triathlete Jane Ornstein was likely unconscious when she inhaled her first mouthful of seawater at some point on her plunge to the ocean floor off Pompano Beach, Florida. Already debilitated—probably by the effects of oxygen poisoning—Ornstein succumbed and died with merciful swiftness.

Things began to unravel at one of the first decompression stops as Ornstein, 33-year-old instructor Derek McNulty, and three other students ascended from a short trip to the murky 275-foot bottom on that dayin May 1998. Investigators believe she mistakenly switched her breathing supply over to an oxygen-rich mixture known to be highly toxic at great depths.

McNulty later told investigators that Ornstein continued ascending with him and three other students until she was just 40 feet shy of the surface. At this point, he said, she signaled to him that she was out of air. He instructed her to switch to another tank and head up another ten feet, then went to help another diver who had entangled himself in a safety line. But Ornstein overshot the 30-foot mark and floated up to a depth of 20 feet. Apparently suffering from the onset of oxygen poisoning, which can cause visual disturbances, nausea, or disorientation, she struggled to cope with her buoyancy equipment, which was later found to have malfunctioned. With the surface just a few feet above her, she lost consciousness.

McNulty told Broward County homicide detectives that he saw a burst of bubbles from Ornstein; then he watched her limp body, saddled with more than 250 pounds of gear, begin to plummet toward the bottom. One of the other students swam down after her, but couldn’t catch her. Daniel Mitchell, himself a diving instructor—but only a student on this trip—told investigators that there was no physical way anyone could save Ornstein and still stay alive.

When Ornstein’s body was found on the bottom the next day, her face mask was off and her regulator was out of her mouth. One of her tanks still contained breathable gas.

THE POMPANO BEACH incident resembles any of a dozen fatal accidents that occur each year in the elite, high-risk world of technical diving—a sport that involves descending beyond 130 feet, often in hazardous environments such as shipwrecks and caves, at times using breathable combinations of helium, nitrogen, and oxygen. And it is precisely the kind of event that throws the diving community into a fit of pained self-examination. Only now, the internal debate is being fueled by a broad institutional change: In January, an arm of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, or PADI, the world’s largest dive-training agency, will roll out its first technical-diving training program. The firm’s new courses will make what many consider to be the hazardous fringe of the sport more accessible to the millions of sport divers around the nation.

This scenario—which concerns many veteran tech divers—could scarcely have been imagined back in the mid-1980s, when Bill Stone, a structural engineer from Gaithersburg, Maryland, first began experimenting with helium-based breathing gases to explore deep caves in Wakulla Springs, Florida. Stone and his team ventured more than three miles into underwater cave passages at depths exceeding 300 feet—far beyond the reach of ordinary compressed-air scuba. Though commercial and military divers had breathed “mix” (a blend of breathable gases) for decades, and Jacques Cousteau had used it to reach 400 feet in 1976, Stone was one of the first to apply it to recreational diving. By the early 1990s, with the support of a handful of specialized training and equipment vendors, the fledgling sport of technical diving began to take hold among more adventurous scuba fans.Today it is arguably the highest-profile segment of the sport.

PADI estimates there are three million sport divers in the U.S., but Technical Diving International, a school based in Maine, says that there are only about 200,000 technical divers in the entire world. Still, tekkies make a dent in the market disproportionate to their numbers. Each of these elite frogmen commonly spends as much as $5,000 on gear, including a specialized buoyancy-compensator device, a dive computer, and sometimes an underwater scooter. (A typical sport diver owns about $2,000 worth of equipment.) Tech divers also invest heavily in training courses. Which is where PADI comes in.

Considered the Microsoft of diving—a no-holds-barred competitor dominating the training industry—PADI claims to certify 70 percent of all new divers in the United States, and 60 percent of all divers worldwide. Its global network of about 100,000 retailers and instructors dwarfs that of the firm’s nearest competitor, the National Association of Underwater Instructors. Some 200 staffers work for the private company, based in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. In a 1996 interview, PADI president John Cronin said the company pulls in more than $30 million a year from certification fees and the sale of instructional books and videos in 24 languages. It is a finely tuned marketing machine, built on untold scores of regimented dive classes.

Which is, in the eyes of many, exactly the problem. Making tech diving more accessible to a mass market is “like putting a civilian pilot behind the controls of an F-14,” says attorney Bobby Delise, whose Metairie, Louisiana, firm built its practice on representing families of those killed in diving accidents. “You can’t market life-threatening activities like tech diving and BASE jumping the same way you market other services. You have to play by different rules.” He is concerned that would-be tekkies already take so many classes that they don’t get enough real-world diving experience. “It doesn’t make any sense for students with fewer than 100 dives to be taking a mixed-gas class,” he says. “The bar is too low, and when a mistake occurs the price is too high.”

Like alpinism, tech diving is brutally unforgiving—participants risk such physiological disasters as nitrogen narcosis, oxygen poisoning, and the bends. In 1998 and 1999, 28 out of the nation’s 161 diving fatalities, or roughly 17 percent of the total, were tekkies. If that sounds unimpressive, consider that tech divers constitute a very small slice of the overall diving population. “I lose two friends a year,” says Bridgeport, Connecticut­based technical diving instructor Joel Silverstein. (He’s never lost a student or partner.) “Fatalities are part and parcel of technical diving.”

PADI acknowledges that it is plunging into treacherous waters. “Our philosophy is that tech is not for everyone,” says Karl Shreeves, a vice-president of Diving Science and Technology, the arm of PADI that will run the new tekkie program. “We’re not going to market it that way. We don’t expect huge numbers.” But many tech trainers have profound philosophical issues with the firm’s approach. PADI students progress through a sequence of written exams before advancing to the next level. Instructors must stick to the book and are given little or no leeway to improvise. By contrast, old-school tech trainers believe religiously that the experience of the instructor is everything and that rote rules just won’t help beyond 200 feet, when problems must be solved quickly and instinctively.

Though Shreeves says PADI won’t oversell the tech program, critics fear the firm’s mass-market focus. “Tech diving is completely different [from sport diving],” says Dave Mount, the general manager of the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD). “It requires an exceptional instructor with tremendous experience and currency.” Shreeves counters that PADI has a proven track record and offers the industry’s best quality-assurance program —asking students to critique their instructors. Further, he stresses that the new program will only accept students who have logged more than 100 dives, trained in specialites such as night diving, and have several certifications above the basic open-water level.

The Pompano Beach incident arguably demonstrates that not even the training organizations that specialize in tech diving have spotless records: At the time of the tragedy, Derek McNulty was an IANTD-certified instructor.

In some respects, PADI may usher in a higher level of professionalism for the sport. “PADI has a long history of creating outstanding [classroom] materials,” says Bob Decker, the training director at Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, North Carolina.”In that manner they will raise the bar.” But he also charges that the company has in the past been guilty of taking what he calls a “fast-food approach” by not insisting divers put in the time to pay their dues and gain critical experience.

IT IS DIFFICULT to say whether the first large-scale foray into training beyond 130 feet will mean more divers will die there. “Tech is more risky than recreational diving, but to be honest, that’s part of the appeal,” says PADI’s Shreeves. “Extreme-sports enthusiasts appreciate the challenge of managing that risk in exchange for the experience that few people get to have.” By virtue of its sheer size and resources, PADI will undoubtedly open up the dark depths to throngs of adventure seekers, and if not launch a trend, then tap into one that is already growing. “People treat tech diving as if it were just another recreational specialty like night diving,” says Florida-based Jarrod Jablonski, one of the top tech divers in the world and holder of the record for the deepest underwater cave penetration, just over three lateral miles. “But it isn’t.”

A C C E S S + R E S O U R C E S
Abyss Exploration 101

Although tech diving is dangerous, it is also great adventure. Take the time to learn the risks involved before going deep. Below, some of the leading players in tech training.

Professional Association of Diving Instructors
PADI’s tech diving program will launch in January. Prices will vary with locations and instructors.

Global Underwater Explorers
The average two- to three-person, five-day course is $600. Private classes run $1,100 to $1,600.

Technical Diving International
Course lengths vary according to diver’s skill level and run $150 to $1,000.

International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers
One- to eight-day classes range from $150 to $750.

American Nitrox Divers
Course lengths vary according to diver’s skill level and run $495 to $700.

National Association of Underwater Instructors
Classes vary in price according to length and region.


The first genetically engineered snowboard?


Mervin Manufacturing cofounders Mike Olson and Pete Saari, both 36, have taken snowboarding into an era when playing God is an appropriate form of R&D. Or so they say. The pair’s new Gnu Altered Genetics snowboard ($499; 206-270-9792; features a two-headed sheep logo and is built on a wood core they call “Specimen 273677.” The company claims the tree is a genetically engineered plant that combines the best qualities of balsa, bamboo, and aspen, but the USDA has never heard of such a Frankenwood. Further, after examining a Gnu-supplied micrograph of Specimen 273677, University of Idaho forest products professor Steven Shook says the plant is likely just royal paulownia, a fast-growing tree native to China. Genetic marvel or not, the GAG is indeed 30 percent lighter than anything currently available, so you can expect to see it flying just a shade higher at your local halfpipe. “It performs better than composites, and it’s organic,” gushes Olson. “So many years I’ve worked with composites, but this is too good to be true.” He might be right.

Private Lessons

Kristina Koznick was one of the U.S. Ski Team’s best shots at Olympic gold. Then she and her coach fell in love.

THE U.S. SKI team has always been a place where dreams are made and broken, but the drama doesn’t usually go down like a Shakespearean romance. That changed last spring when U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Dan Stripp, 39, was fired by his boss, Marjan Cernigoj, for “overstepping the professional boundaries between coach and athlete.” The athlete in question happened to be the nation’s top slalom racer and best hope for a gold in the 2002 Winter Olympics: Kristina Koznick, an eight-year ski-team veteran now ranked fifth in the world in slalom. “The ski team does have a policy against relationships, and it is hard to enforce,” says Koznick, 25. “We knew the rules. There was no [sexual] relationship between us.” But the soap opera didn’t end there. In August, after Stripp’s firing, Koznick dropped her own bombshell: she had quit the team to train with her squeeze.

Training solo is a rare and risky strategy; World Cup­level racing requires Napoleonic logistics and astronomical travel costs. “It hasn’t happened before with an athlete at her level,” says USST spokesman Tom Kelly. (In the mid-1990s, however, top-ranked world racer Julie Parisien opted for a private training regimen—with full support from the U.S. Ski Team—and tanked.)

Has Koznick thrown it all away for love? Not according to her. “He knows me like the back of his hand,” she says of her coach, himself a former USST racer. “He knows everything about me, and my skiing’s done really well. It’s rare, and I can’t let it slip away.” Refusing to bow to their sport’s ethical elite, Koznick and Stripp have in recent months trained on slalom courses set up by European teams. On a glacier in Solden, Austria, they awkwardly trained alongside the U.S. team—head coach Cernigoj is not on speaking terms with Stripp.

“I don’t think a coach and athlete should be that close. It’s not professional,” says Tasha Nelson, one of Koznick’s former teammates. “Some of the girls didn’t like it. They felt cheated.” Since the split, Nelson admits, “it’s not been smooth by any means.”

Koznick also misses her former colleagues. “I wish I could still train with the team,” she reflects, “but they said it had to be all or nothing.” She’s determined to prove that she made the right decision. Used to facing slim odds—she’s from flatland Minnesota, for one thing—Koznick thrives under pressure. For now, she’s trying to raise the $300,000 needed to compete on the World Cup circuit and train for the World Alpine Ski Championships, in Austria this January, and eventually, the Olympics. “It’s everything I’ve ever wanted, and it’s coming down to the last straw. I know what I need to do to win.”

The Crux

Air Pollution

Hazy Shade of Winter
Activists battle to preserve the birthplace of extreme skiing. But will lthe trucks return?

THIS COULD BE THE LAST winter in many moons to see 15,771-foot Mont Blanc and nearby peaks as they appeared back in the 1950s—that is, bright, white, and smog-free. Last summer, the French government announced that the Mont Blanc Tunnel, closed following a tragic March 1999 fire that claimed 39 lives, will reopen in spring 2001, likely bringing back the daily parade of 2,500 to 5,000 heavy trucks that have used the tunnel to pass through the Alps. This is not good news for the tiny town of Chamonix. Experts predict that carbon dioxide emissions there and all over the Alps will increase more than 20 percent if nothing changes in the next ten years. Now, in a region better known for radical couloirs than radical causes, air quality has moved to the top of the agenda.

Last October, the 2,500-member Association pour le Respect du Site du Mont Blanc filed a civil suit against the government-owned company that manages the tunnel. With donations from U.S. firms like Patagonia, which has given some $35,000 to its cause, the no-more-trucks camp— including ARSMB, Chamonix mayor Michel Charlet, and a group called Alp Action—hopes that a favorable ruling in the pending trial will force France’s transportation industry to use railroads for commercial shipping. They also hope the trial will calm hot tempers. “People are going to blow it up before it opens—that’s how mad people are,” says Marie Bouchard, owner of the North Conway, New Hampshire­based climbing gear manufacturer Wild Things and a part-time Chamonix resident. “It’s not going to be peaceful.” —Eric Pfanner


”People remain very charged up. Especially when they realize that the government doesn’t move unless it is confronted with violent action. For the moment, I’m doing my best to temper them.”
—Georges Unia, president, Association pour le Respect du Site du Mont Blanc

”We would like the tunnel to reopen, but in the context of a broader transportation policy that includes discussion of rail.”

—Spokeswoman for the French Transport Ministry

”Something so beautiful shouldn’t have to be defended with words in a courtroom. It’s outrageous that this site needs a lawyer.”
—Martine Heraud, owner of the Librairie VO bookstore in Chamonix

”France, for the moment, is totally out of step with Europe on transport issues. Not a single decision has been made in favor of rail.”
—Nadege Chable, environmental coordinator for Patagonia’s French Alpine region

* Association pour le Respect du Site du Mont Blanc can be found at
* Autoroutes et Tunnel du Mont Blanc, the company that manages the Mont Blanc Tunnel, makes its case at
* A joint statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, president of Alp Action; Michel Charlet, mayor of Chamonix; and Andreas Weissen, president of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps, is at
* Tourist information about Chamonix and Mont Blanc is available at

The Alternative: Trucks on Trains
With a single European market fueling appetites for Roma tomatoes and Roquefort cheese, the Mont Blanc Tunnel has become a crucial commercial link. The ARSMB proposes two new tunnels, either of which would keep big rigs out of Chamonix (the group has no boeuf with cars). A new $10 billion, 30-mile railway tunnel under the main spine of the Alps would allow high-speed trains, carrying tractor trailers, to pass far underneath Chamonix. In neighboring Switzerland, one such tunnel is already under construction. Failing that pricey scheme, Georges Unia, the 45-year-old leader of ARSMB, proposes an upgrade of existing crossings (for a cool $1 billion), such as a short rail tunnel in the Maurienne Valley 50 miles to the south. French and Italian leaders have been holding regular meetings in pursuit of an agreement on that proposal. A final deal has proven elusive, though all parties agree that something has to be done. For now, the trucks have been belching through the Maurienne Valley and groaning over a mountain pass near the ski area of Montgenèvre. Sure enough, one town on that route, Argentiere-la-Bessee, is now suffering the same smoggy fate that befell Chamonix. Says Montgenèvre mayor Joel Giraud: “Unless something is done, the tourist industry here is doomed.” —E.P.


If You Hide It, They Will Come

With a Web site and a nod from President Clinton, GPS nuts get a worldwide scavenger hunt to call their own

IT’S NOT TOTALLY true, you know, this notion that geeks never see the sun. Dedicated gearheads just need a few gadgets to make the great outdoors a little less outdoorsy. Take geocaching, a small but growing nerd sport that combines the childhood thrill of the scavenger hunt with the bushwhacking joys of orienteering.

The idea is simple: Participants visit the geocachingWeb page located at, and enter their zip codes. The site returns a list of nearby hidden treasure chests—typically, white plastic buckets containing sundries such as a bottle of tequila, a disposable camera, a paperback, some gum—and the booty’s latitude and longitude coordinates. The player then punches the cache’s location into his handheld GPS unit and sets off to find it—a quest that usually involves a short off-trail hike, but sometimes calls for a bit of boating or rock climbing. Once discovered, the finder takes something from the bucket, replaces it with a trinket of his own, and goes back online to tell the tale.

If it seems like a lot of effort to justify a little fresh air, consider that geocaching was actually invented—well, let’s say enabled—by Bill Clinton. Last May, he ordered the Defense Department to shut off a jamming signal that, ostensibly for reasons of national security, had deliberately been fed into the Global Positioning System. With a few keystrokes at Space Command in Colorado Springs, a GPS unit that could previously fix the location of a given object, say, a bucket labeled “GPS CACHE,” within 300 feet could now nail it within 30. Presto: The geeks had a new hobby.

More than 110 caches are now hidden in at least 28 states and 13 countries. The question remains, though: Why? Rich Gibson, 39, a computer programmer and GPS cacher from Sebastapol, California, chalks it up to a kind of millennial Calvinism. “Deep down we all know that the journey is the destination, but we recoil from pursuits that lack a destination. I have a friend who calls this ‘purposeful purposelessness,'” he says. And you thought it just sounded like fun.


Step Aside, Julia Butterfly—La Tigresa is on the Prowl

The female body is used to hawk everything from booze to Barbados, so Dona Nieto figured her own might aid the cause of saving California’s redwoods. In October, the Mendocino-based performance artist, who has dubbed herself La Tigresa, began marching into old-growth forests 120 miles north of San Francisco with her cadre of activists, the “Goddess Squaddess,” to strip off her faux-tigerskin sarong and beguile stunned logging crews with her poetry—and her bare-naked chest. —Bill Vaughn

Q: What on earth were you thinking?
A: I’m happy to make jokes, to say my “Striptease to Save the Trees” is an effort to keep the public abreast of the timber industry’s greed, but I’m trying to make the point that a naked woman is vulnerable, beautiful, and sacred, and the naked earth is vulnerable, beautiful, and sacred. What’s obscene are clear-cuts.

Q: How have loggers reacted?
A: They’re befuddled at first. But they’ve treated me with great respect. They turn off their machines and listen. It’s probably changed them for life. I’ve had loggers refuse to cross my picket line not because I was rabble-rousing but because I was a beautiful woman with tears in my eyes saying, “I am your mother, don’t hurt me.”

Q: Do you think you’ve saved any redwoods?
A: Absolutely. For hours every day the crews are talking to me instead of cutting trees.

Q: At the risk of sounding impolite, may we ask your size?
A: Let me recite some other numbers instead. Numbers like 99, which is the percent of the old-growth forests of California that have been logged. Numbers like 1,000, which is the age of some of the trees dragged to the back of the trucks. And let’s just say I’m stacked.

promo logo